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opinion

Jason Kenney speaks in response to the results of the United Conservative Party leadership review in Calgary on May 18.Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

As a polarizing, soon-to-be-gone premier, Jason Kenney isn’t the most obvious choice to lead an advertising pitch asking other Canadians to move to Alberta. But in recent weeks he has put his own name and face to a campaign to attract people to the province. There has been a blitz of social-media and radio ads, and Toronto’s busy Bloor subway station has been postered with land-of-opportunity marketing.

The “Alberta is Calling” campaign has certainly been mocked, with critics asking who wants to answer the call from a wild west flyover province governed by an arch conservative like Mr. Kenney? As it turns out, lots of people. It’s easy to imagine the departing Premier chuckling into his Irish whisky this week as Statistics Canada reported on interprovincial migration to Alberta – high numbers not seen in years, and at the expense of Ontario.

Of course, the movement of people to Alberta in the second quarter of this year has nothing to do with Mr. Kenney’s current campaign, per se. People were already being drawn west based not on his appeals but on the magnificent mountains and shorter commutes. Relatively affordable real estate is now a huge draw for Alberta cities, and Mr. Kenney understands this. As former premier Ralph Klein often said, a key part of politics is figuring out which way the parade is headed and jumping in front.

Opinion: If Jason Kenney calls, think twice before answering

Mr. Kenney has had a difficult time leading in anything, let alone a parade, during his three-year tenure as Premier. His brand of budget-cutting conservative politics certainly didn’t suit pandemic times, when health care leadership was paramount. He was often torn between loyalty to the province as a whole, which generally accepted vaccine mandates and health measures, and an angry cohort of United Conservative Party members and MLAs who did not. And it’s hard to remember now, but in 2020, the outlook for the province’s key industries of oil and natural gas production looked especially grim.

However, in the time since UCP members gave him an underwhelming level of support in a leadership review – and he announced his departure – we have seen a somewhat different premier emerge. Circumstances have changed. Mr. Kenney is less constrained by the pandemic, or his fractious party. Oil and natural gas prices are wavering, but still high – giving the province a shot of new political clout. His focus on a series of last economic or project announcements seems to have taken priority over battles with the federal Liberal government.

The past month alone has seen a flurry of announcements impossible to keep up with. He greenlit the decision to use a government surplus this year to pay off $13-billion in debt, and put almost $3-billion into the Heritage Savings Trust Fund. He announced a new immigration program for religious workers and helped to facilitate an agreement for the return of the Manitou Asiniy – a 145-kilogram iron meteorite also known as the Manitou Stone, sacred to Indigenous communities – closer to its historical home near Hardisty, Alta.

He could barely contain his excitement with the news that De Havilland Aircraft will build a large-scale manufacturing facility and airfield east of Calgary, employing an estimated 1,500 people. It’s a counterintuitive announcement for Alberta – a real move toward economic diversification. The Premier noted the skepticism that came at him two years ago, as his government released Alberta’s Recovery Plan, when he said the province could become a hub for aviation.

Mr. Kenney doesn’t talk much about himself or his personal life. But earlier this month, Albertans got a rare glimpse of the human side of the Premier as the world said goodbye to Queen Elizabeth. He got visibly emotional when speaking about her death in the legislature, saying his grief was surprising even to him, “as though I’d lost a grandmother, or a long-time friend.” He paid out of his own pocket to travel to London to queue for hours, overnight, to pay his respects at the lying-in-state at Westminster Hall.

And then there was Mr. Kenney’s off-the-cuff speech at the Alberta Municipalities conference, where he appeared to be more stand-up comedian than politician. He poked fun at himself and pretended to brush off a call from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “This is clearly not a UCP caucus meeting,” Mr. Kenney joked as delegates gave him an ovation.

Despite his lack of a cordial relationship with many members of the UCP caucus, some of the people who have worked closely with Mr. Kenney say they have never had a better, more considerate boss. Others lament that Alberta is losing a leader that looks far beyond the province’s boundaries, at international markets, and who has relationships with policy makers in the United States and around the world.

On that front, his criticism of Danielle Smith’s signature policy is key. He has been enthusiastic in his criticism of the UCP leadership front-runner’s proposed sovereignty act, which he believes would hurt the province’s business prospects, much of which he has worked hard to build up.

It’s the strange moment where Mr. Kenney is leaving but is not yet gone. Even with his time as Premier ending, Mr. Kenney continues to work. Surely it’s about establishing a legacy beyond a bungled pandemic response in the summer of 2021. But he also seems to be in a mad rush to get loose ends tied up, keep election campaign promises and make announcements that are difficult for future premiers to unwind.

Mr. Kenney could jam in more activities in the days ahead, just before a new premier is sworn in, an event that could come just after the Thanksgiving long weekend. If Ms. Smith wins the leadership contest, she’s expected to quickly seek a seat in the legislature through a by-election in one of the southern Alberta ridings where a UCP incumbent has said they’re not going to run again.

It might not be apparent now, given his approval numbers, but Albertans could some day miss the current premier – or at least the mid-2022 version of Mr. Kenney.